Enough: A Memoir of Mistakes, Mania, and Motherhood by Amelia Zachry

Enough: A Memoir of Mistakes, Mania, and Motherhood
by Amelia Zachry

This was an incredibly difficult memoir to read, but I am grateful that I did. Part of the hand-to-my-throat factor for me was how close Zachry’s experiences were to my own. Like her I am a Malaysian woman, one who entered the slipstream of migration and has become a transcultural, transnational creature with feet and hands in multiple worlds.

I also recognized the gaslighting and the gendered physical and psychological violence embedded in Malaysian culture. I recognized the gaslighting and gendered violence she experienced embedded in human society everywhere.

This was hard, so hard, to read at so many points. I had to put this book down multiple times. But the discomfort it caused was also what forced me to return to it. The kind of emotional disturbance Zachry’s memoir inflicts is that which can only be excised by pushing through all the way to the end.

I am glad I returned to it, acknowledged her pain my own (caused by reading it) and kept going in spite of all that. There is more than suffering in this memoir. Zachry illuminates a healing path too.

Zachry’s memoir is not a Malaysian one, although this is a cultural aspect of her experience that cannot be brushed aside. In this I recognized Zachry’s heritage as akin to my own; women told to swallow their pride, their pain, their voices. It is a world in which women remain — and are expected to remain — invisible. And this is true across Malaysia’s many cultures, ethnicities, and religious communities. For all the lovely tropical lushness of Malaysia, it is not a paradise for everyone; feminism is throttled by legal manipulations, feminists ostracized as social pariahs (even when Western-style feminism is eschewed in favor of local versions of feminism.)

But, I digress; Enough is not a memoir of a culture. Zachry’s experience is one that is all too familiar and common across cultures and in all societies. It is an extraordinary story of a crime that is horrendously ordinary. Hers was a life lived by many people; that’s what makes Enough so memorable, so relatable, so important to read.

Zachry’s memoir begins at her beginning, with childhood, then takes the reader into her teenage and early adult years. It is then that Zachry’s life is altered by an event that haunts her (even now after she has found ways to manage it). The bulk of this memoir is devoted to Zachry’s struggle with the trauma of this event, her path to a recovery, and it ends with a substantial section on her present life which shifts the focus to the traumas of migration and the development of her transcultural identity. Zachry’s journey to a happy place is not one filled with woo-woo cures or unattainable magic pills. Zachry documents how hard work, emotional work punctuated by slips and backslides is the tried and true path; one accessible to all of us, at least in theory.

This is a memoir for all women because this is a story we all know, first-hand, second-hand, or otherwise.

I Am Oum Ry: A Champion Kickboxer’s Story of Surviving the Cambodian Genocide and Discovering Peace by Oum Ry, told to Zochada Tat and Addi Somekh

Afterward by Michael G. Vann, PhD.

I Am Oum Ry: A Champion Kickboxer’s Story of Surviving the Cambodian Genocide and Discovering Peace by Oum Ry

This memoir strikes hard on multiple levels. It is a reflection of contemporary America and the transnational, transcultural, immigrant experience that many Americans live, whether themselves or vicariously (as Zochada Tat did), as the children of immigrants. Migration is a traumatic event, (sometimes positive, sometimes not, but always) one that reaches across several generations. Oum Ry’s memoir toggles forward and back in time, threading a connection in time between father (Oum Ry) and daughter (Zochada Tat). From this perspective, I Am Oum Ry is an emotional read, a subjective vacuum in which the characters are the primary focus, separate from the context of their world in a way. Tat and Somekh portray Oum Ry, his many lovers, his wife, his children, and the myriad of people who came, left, or stayed in his orbit, in all their flawed perfection; the logics behind his and their behavior as consequences of individualized trauma: parental abandonment, grief of loved ones lost or killed, sexual desire and exploitation.

But people do not exist in vacuum. The individuals in these pages are not ahistorical; they are deeply embedded in histories of patriarchy, Colonialism, the Cold War, the Khmer Rouge genocide, the American/Vietnam War, Cambodian traditions, and collective desires for modernity, belonging, and security.

The memoir takes the reader to Cambodia in the mid-twentieth century, beginning just after WWII. The French stubbornly cling to Indochina. Then ahead to the American War in Vietnam a decade later. It lingers on the five golden years of the 20th century when Cambodia perched on the edge of modernity, part of a larger Southeast Asian moment of revivalism and decolonization and prosperity in the early 1970s. After that the reader follows Oum Ry into the dark age of the Khmer Rouge genocide, and the suffering that followed as Oum Ry, like so many thousands of other Cambodians fled to Thailand to seek asylum elsewhere, anywhere. Oum Ry, like many other fortunate refugees makes his way to the United States where he finds both happiness and deep disappointment. The life of a migrant is bittersweet, filled with hope and longing.

The histories I Am Oum Ry excavates are powerful, a fisted punch to the gut. Oum Ry holds nothing back. The currents of forced migration, war, genocide, and racism that underpin Oum Ry’s words and experiences will knock the wind out of readers. This is an important memoir, not because it is unique — it isn’t, there are many Cambodian-American/Cambodian memoirs written by survivors of the Khmer Rouge — but because it neither indicts or glorifies the past or the present. The Khmer Rouge are not the sole villains of the genocide, though they are largely responsible for the horrors Oum Ry and other Cambodians experience; the Vietnamese and ordinary, fellow Cambodians are part of the horrific milieu of that moment too. America is not hailed as the land of milk and honey; it too is a dark land of racism, crime, poverty, and disappointment. But it isn’t all bad either; Oum Ry and his family find a place in California and become new Americans.

It is also significant in that it highlights pradal serey/muay thai, and centers around this sport. It is unique in this aspect. Oum Ry occupies a unique cultural position as a fighter, a sports icon in Cambodian history and 20th century Cambodian culture; his memoir gives us a rare glimpse into a world of sport and celebrity that was exclusive before the war and certainly much more so afterwards as a result of the loss of so many Cambodian stars.

For me, as a Southeast Asian scholar and a historian of Southeast Asian sport, I Am Oum Ry possesses academic significance. Sport is an often overlooked aspect of history and culture, seen as purely recreational. I Am Oum Ry proves how wrong this assumption is; pradal serey deserves attention as a historical artifact of a lost moment and in the present as a vital element of Cambodian-American identity and Cambodian cultural revival.

For almost every reader, I Am Oum Ry will evoke a multitude of emotions ranging from sad to inspired. Oum Ry’s life has been a rollercoaster in and out of the fighter’s ring. It has been dramatic in positive and negative ways. His is a life worth the reading.

Peach Blossom Spring: A Novel by Melissa Fu

Peach Blossom Spring: A Novel by Melissa Fu

I’ll be honest; the first 60 pages of this novel did not impress me. There was nothing wrong specifically, it’s just that nothing stood out to me in terms of character development or plot. But persistence paid off and by the end of the book I was in tears, ugly crying over the lifetime of grief, loss, and intergenerational trauma that history forced on the characters. This is a book I will never part with; I want my children and grand children to read this book.

The novel begins in the 1930s when China has been ravaged by European encroachments on its sovereignty; internal fractures between peasants, warlords, and the rising middle class; and the Japanese, who are gaining ground and support for their own imperializing campaigns. The Dao family are much like many others of their class: they own an antiques business, they are merchants living prosperous urban lives. Then the Japanese arrive and they are forced to flee. Meilin and her young, suddenly fatherless son, Renshu escape with her brother-in-law, her husband’s brother, Dao Longwei and his wife, Wenling and their two daughters. But the war continues and despite Longwei’s protection, Meilin and Renshu are separated from the other Dao family members.

The war with the Japanese slides into World War II and then into China’s Civil War. The seams between these conflicts are invisible to those like Meilin and Renshu who survive in the semi-peaceful interstices and spaces between them. The novel traces their journey across space and time, from China to the United States, and is marked by the people and things they lose along the way. This sense of loss — particularly of the loss of family, identity, and belonging — is the fulcrum around which the novel revolves.

Meilin, Renshu, and eventually Renshu’s daughter, Lily narrate their own and the Dao family story across several decades, three generations who experience the their subjective transnational, migration history and the larger, tragic events of Chinese history very differently. The reader is given a glimpse into living wounds of war, the kind that fester long after the battle has been lost, a world in which those who bear the brunt of war are not the combatants but the bystanders, even the truly innocent, those as yet unborn at the time of war. Like Yaa Gyasi’s Homegoing (which I read, but did not review here), Mother of Strangers by Suad Amiry, and Moth by Melody Razak this is a story of the effects of war and politics on those who had little to do with battle.

Loss and the grief of never being able to “go back” to be again what you once were, to have what you once had, and the especially painful suffering of being a transnational person, an immigrant belonging to two places at once and never fully to any one of them is a key theme in the novel. This is embedded in the title of the novel, which is premised on a scroll that Meilin inherits from her husband and a story she draws from it and tells to her son. In each their own ways, Meilin, Renshu, and Lily can never truly be whole in the way they want. History imposes on them, forces them to be split, to grieve for something or some part of them they cannot have, cannot be.

In comparison to Moth and Mother of Strangers, Peach Blossom Spring is less literary in prose and style, but no less powerful or profound. Fu’s style and language is more accessible to the casual reader of historical fiction; it is succinct, but deeply emotionally evocative. Indeed, the emotional build up is slow and steady. I didn’t realize how attached I’d become to the characters until the end, when events forced me to confront the idea of losing them. Fu is a shrewd and talented writer, and the emotional cuts her words make leave tender scars.

Although those first 60 pages did leave me wondering where exactly events were heading… I now wonder if that lull was deliberate. Perhaps the explosion of my interest performative of the dramatic effect of war on the characters. The lull before the storm…

The Picture Bride: A Novel by Lee Geum-Yi

The Picture Bride: A Novel by Lee Geum-Yi

The Picture Bride is a historical novel that transcends its unique historical moment to touch on experiences and themes the reader will find familiar: the significance of family, the trials of marriage and love, loss and grief of loved ones lost to death or distance. The novel revolves around the migration of picture brides from East Asia to Hawai’i and the Western United States, a practice that was rampant in the early few decades of the twentieth century. Japanese and Korean men left their homelands to find work on Hawai’ian plantations, and as they accrued a little bit of wealth they found themselves in a primarily homosocial world, absent of East Asian women. To find love and fulfill their duty to wed, they would engage the services of a matchmaker and seek out a bride from their home country. The technology of the day limited the contact between potential bride and groom to correspondence and a photograph, hence the name given to this marital transaction: both the bride and groom would have nothing to more than a photograph to base their physical attraction on.

Many men who sought wives in this way were long past the typical marriage age of men in their home countries. Aware of their advanced age and how this might deter a young woman from wanting to marry them, they often used a fake photograph of someone else or a photograph from their youth. Picture brides discovered the deception on their arrival, too late to turn back — if they had the money to do so — without suffering humiliation or possible repudiation by their families.

Of course, such arrangements also resulted in personality mismatches and other deceptions of character, on both sides. In the end, all the migrants have no choice but to set those differences and loyalties aside; the people on the plantation and scattered across the islands become the only family they can have.

This is a story of the pain and joy of being an immigrant, of what lengths we have to go through to find our place in the world. The novel focuses on loss of family and the gaining of new ones. How these young women adapted, thrived, or wilted in their new homes so far away from their homelands is what unfolds in the novel. I won’t spoil it for you so I will stop my review here.

The Picture Bride is a novel about what it takes to live one’s life as best they can, with what they have and what they have lost.

Homebound: An Uprooted Daughter’s Reflections on Belonging by Vanessa A. Bee

Homebound: An Uprooted Daughter’s Reflections on Belonging
by Vanessa A. Bee

It’s been a few days since I finished reading Home Bound and I’m still mulling it over in my head, turning the things Vanessa — can I call her that? Is it too familiar? — has told me. On the one hand, it feels like she and I have much in common: the Spice Girls and Hey, Arnold! are part of the memorabilia of my own 90s teenage years. Vanessa’s memoir strikes a familiar note in many ways. Home Bound is a memoir of movement and migration, transcultural and transnational switching and code switching, and the conflict of culture between places and communities and within a place and a single community. I know that. I’ve experienced that before and now, still.

Home Bound traces Vanessa’s life from her childhood through to the present, across time as well as space. Her life begins in Cameroon, a place she is ever drawn back to (is she as uprooted as the title suggests), but she grows up in France, in a number of places, in a number of homes and neighborhoods. Vanessa disabuses us of any romantic notions of France and how the French live. But then, she makes the point in her memoir that she is only partially French. Her memoir takes us to London where she was more French than English, a mix of Cameroonian and French depending on the location. Then to America, where she becomes domiciled in one of the most American of American states, Texas.

But, of course, Home Bound is more than just a travel log.

The book takes us into deep discussions about gender and what it means to be a woman, what it means to be a sexual being, a sexualized being or object, and how to object to that objectification. It explores mothering and growing up, coming-of-age and what that means when it is done across multiple cultures. The book is also about faith, the religious kind and the internal, subjective kind (“believing in yourself”). Vanessa boldly brings up being of mixed race heritage, discusses adoption and parentage. Lineage is a major thread that winds through the book, guides the reader. Ideas are intergenerational, travel through blood as well as through proximity, from a caregiver to their charge. Education is not merely academic, formal, institutionalized. Home Bound makes it clear that it is more complex than that, it is pervasive within and out of the classroom.

The classroom is a large part of Vanessa’s memoir. I should say, education is a large part of her memoir. The classroom is the locale of her education, the formal kind and the ideological kind. It is here, in the discussion of education and upbringing that Vanessa’s story departs from my own and I feel like I am watching a film of someone else. Someone who feels familiar but is not me.

There is familiarity in the the demise of her American dream. Its death is similar in some ways to what happened to my own. She says in one part how she had thought of herself in some ways as white, having been raised and lived among white people for so long. It’s not an uncommon experience. Fanon was onto something universal when he warned us of masks and disguises that fool no one but ourselves. Vanessa and I both woke up. Then our American dream died, unable to sustain in the reality of 21st century capitalism and American privatization, without a trust fund to help keep it breathing. The classroom had a lot to do with the deaths of our dreams.

I realize now, as I write this, why I call her Vanessa. It seems like Bee isn’t her name. Shouldn’t it is be Billé? And why “A.” and not “Assae”? I suspect this has something to do with the subtitle, Uprooted. For me, the subtitle, An Uprooted Daughter’s Reflections on Belonging, strikes me differently, perhaps because of my academic background in history. The subtitle calls to mind Oscar Handlin’s The Uprooted, that magnum opus of migration history that centered the migrant, their “peasant” origins, and their struggles to find their feet — plant new roots — in American soil. Did Vanessa mean to infer a kind of transition from peasantry into… educated bourgeoisie? I don’t know. I don’t think so. I can’t see it. But uprooted means something. Perhaps it is the violence of being separated from one’s comfortable ideas, coming to terms with the deflation of an illusion; in Vanessa’s case, of her fathers, her faith, her marriage, her trust in men, her color and all that “color” means as it is used to define us in others’ eyes and as we use it to define ourselves.

This is a complex memoir, as complicated as Vanessa’s personal history. It sprawls, but its many parts and tangents cohere to a single theme: Home Bound is about figuring out who your people are and realizing that we will not find a perfect fit in any community. We will belong in some ways, be alienated in others. Some times it is a matter of chronology; we belonged in the past, we cannot belong in the present. Sometimes we belong with strangers, sometimes those closest to us are not those who should have our trust. If I sound bleak, I do not mean to; Home Bound makes it clear that the journey — perhaps for all of us — is complicated — and sometimes it really helps to see how someone else navigated it.

Home Bound is a profound, nuanced memoir well-worth the reading.

The New American by Micheline Aharonian Marcom

The New American by Micheline Aharonian Marcom

I found this novel by chance, sifting through the remainder books stacked on a Dollar Tree shelf. (Now a dollar TWENTY-FIVE tree due to Covid-19 caused inflation. Still, a steal.) I was searching for scavenger hunt rewards for my Summer class. The title caught my eye and as I picked it up I wondered if I would regret it. In these increasingly divisive days, the word “American” conjures a dark and paranoid shadow, a hidden figure that vaguely appears to be toting a gun. It is a hateful individual with movements that jerk unpredictably, violently. I could not help but take a pause to wonder at my assumptions: Who is the New American? I am one, but I don’t recognize the person in my vision. Who would Aharonian Marcom’s American be? Hopefully they are not merely a rehashed version of the old American. Never buy a book without reading the front and back flaps. My hope was vindicated. “Dreamer”, “Migrant”, the synopsis told me. I bought two copies. One for myself, one for a scavenger-hunt-winning student.

Aharonian Marcom’s The New American did not disappoint. It seized me and would not let go until I finished it. I wanted to finish it. I had to. The New American is a novel of our moment, the turn of the 21st century. It is unashamed and bold in its title; the novel captures the determination of the human spirit and the suffering of being an American. The latter is inextricable from the former. As an immigrant myself, I saw parts of my own experience in the novel, though my own journey was far less deadly, far less bloody.

The plot is straightforward, a clever ruse for a very complicated discussion of identity, belonging, desire, and survival. The story begins and ends with Emilio, a DREAMER who grew up in California, became a student at UC Berkeley, and then was deported when authorities outside the university sanctuary city boundaries discovered he was undocumented. Emilio is deported to Guatemala, stuck in a legal limbo he cannot see a way out of. He decides — with the typical brashness and fearlessness and naïveté of a college kid — to find a way back to the United States and his former life. His journey takes him through Mexico and the Sonoran Desert. On the way he meets and befriends other migrants: Matilde, Pedro, Jonatan and others. The story follows their feet as they walk miles upon miles upon miles to the deadly trains that carry them across Mexico, follows their feet as they suffer through the heat and aridity of the Sonoran Desert.

The characters seem simple at first, but they are facsimiles of real individuals and as such, the reader will find them complex, confusing, irrational. They are not guided solely by emotion or by avarice or by ambition or by necessity. They are driven by a combination of those things and more. Aharonian Marcom’s prose is succinct but powerful; Milo and Mati are visible to the reader, the pain in their hearts is within reach of their fingers. You could almost detect the odor of their sweat as you read, but then you realize it’s your own because you’re so tense and concerned about what will happen to these young migrants. You know this is a not a love story, that there is no happy ending guaranteed.

The New American‘s back flap told me about Aharonian Marcom and helped seal my desire to read this. They are a professor of Creative Writing at the University of Virginia, a founder and Creative Director of The New American Story Project [NASP], which hosts the website, New American Story. Aharonian Marcom’s research and professional engagements inform the content of the novel, fiction as it is.

I could not help but be reminded of a book I’d read a long time ago, which had changed me: Rubén Martinez’s Crossing Over: A Mexican Family on the Migrant Trail (2013). This was in my own undergraduate days, when I had just begun questioning for myself what it meant to be an American. Aharonian Marcom’s novel reads as the updated version: more YA-oriented, more college freshmen friendly, with a deeper interiority than Martinez’s. Both are wonderful; Martinez’s book still echoes. Almost a decade after it came out, it remains relevant. While there are so many books in the same vein out there now than there were before, it and The New American still have much work to do to bring stories of our humanity — in its glory and deadliness — to new readers. All of them are worth reading, including The New American.